As much as we love ballet, we all know that learning to dance ballet is no easy task. We get down and out about ballet sometimes, or about life in general. However, the obstacles are greater for those who want to pursue it as a career. Sometimes, we have no idea at all what it takes to become a dancer.
Would-be professional dancers must have been fortunate enough to be born with a certain physicality, to have parents who started them early, and to possess certain personality characteristics. They need to be single-minded about their passion for ballet, and to have discipline, mental toughness, capacity for ‘suffering’ through the arduous process of training and making it into vocational school.
And if one does get into vocational school, it doesn’t stop there. It is a whole new level when training with some of the very best in the country, and in some cases, the world.
Charmaine Celesse Gandasasmita is one such dancer from Singapore, who is pursuing her dreams of being a professional in Queensland Ballet Academy in Australia. It is a big deal for us in Singapore, when a dancer makes it to vocational school overseas, because we are a young and small country.
She may be young, but her grit, determination and courage is like no other. Her story moved us and so we want to share it with you.
Here is her story…
1. How long have you been dancing? How did you get into ballet?
I began ballet when I was 5, so I’ve been dancing for about 11 years now.
I started off with baby ballet, movement and rhythm classes. I don’t even think I liked it much, but things changed when I joined the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School dance group. I was in awe of how amazing the older girls were in the ballet pieces, and watched their performance DVDs repetitively, often trying to emulate them. It was from then that I wanted to become better and started being competitive as we were chosen for dance items. I subsequently joined a dance academy which I believed would give me the edge and proper ballet training in order to help me improve.
2. What was it like to dance ballet throughout your childhood?
Ballet then wasn’t focused on exams and repetitive steps. For example, in SCGS, we constantly rehearsed for performances and learned new dance items continuously. I was also exposed to classical ballet variations at a very young age because my dance academy’s primary focus was on performances and dance competitions. Nevertheless, training was harsh and discipline was expected. I learnt to push myself beyond my limits.
Even as a child, there was a constant need to pick up steps and corrections quickly. Dancing in both school and at the academy I felt were equally competitive yet enjoyable, as I loved being on stage and reveled in it. I was blessed to have teachers who were strong role models who taught me the importance of hard work, discipline, respect, mental strength and giving your best at all times.
I was also exposed to different dance genres, like Chinese dance, Tap, Neo-classical, and subsequently recognized the importance of being a versatile dancer.
In the midst of competitions, performances and classes, it was very busy, and I felt that it was certainly not a normal childhood!
3. What was it about ballet, or dance, that made you really love it?
I think I can be a bit obsessive to achieve the ‘perfection of ballet’. Rationally, I know that it can never be achieved, but trying to achieve that ideal is what drives me to push on and stretch my limits each day.
4. Was there a turning point, a stark moment in your life that you can remember, when you’ve decided that dance is what you want to do for the rest of your life?
I can more or less say that it was around the time when I had the chance to learn and work with one of my teachers, Mr Adam Thurlow. He was a ballet teacher at SOTA (School of the Arts) when I was in my 2nd year. He helped me a lot. I was initially impressed by him because he was a dancer at the Paris Opera ballet, but as I got to know him as a teacher, his determination, drive and never-give-up attitude inspired me and also gave me the courage to audition for vocational ballet schools.
I can say that it was because he first believed in me, which then helped me believe that I could do it.
5. How has ballet changed for you from then versus now?
During my earlier years performing, I always thought ballet was only about expressing yourself and all about the upper body movements. Later, I realized that there is a lot of detailed technique involved. It’s not all about just executing the movements flamboyantly, but also about how your foot steps up into an arabesque, or how your alignment plays an important part in helping you turn, for instance.
6. What were some of ‘crazy’ things that you have done to enhance your dancing?
To improve my hyper extension, for example, I would get someone to sit on my knees with my feet propped up on a foam roller.
I also have my well used Flexistretcher for high arabesques, Balance Board for balance, TurnBoard for pirouettes, Thera-band for feet strengthening, and often chuck my feet under the piano to stretch my arch.
7. Your mom has been very supportive about your ballet. What are some of the “unusual” things she would do for you? How about your dad?
My mom frequently tapes my classes for me to view later so I am able to improve my lines and expression. That really helps me a lot, as often times, I think I’m doing it correctly, but it turns out that I need to improve it further. Also, during my recent performance, it was complete darkness in the theatre which makes it difficult for me to spot, so she held up her phone for me during my fouettes.
Due to my hectic schedule, my dad helps me with my school work.
8. Being 16 now, if you could go back in time to when you were 10 years old, what would you have done differently (in terms of training)?
I would have worked on exercises to improve my arch and turn out, focused more on improving my stamina and cleanliness of footwork.
9. What is it like training in Queensland Ballet Academy?
From Mondays to Fridays, we start off each day with a one and a half hour ballet class at 8am. It is then followed by another two classes of either pointe/repertoire, pas de deux, character, contemporary, or body conditioning. We finish at about 12.30pm, and we take the bus to school where we have two academic lessons from 1.50 to 4.45pm.
On Saturdays, we start at 9am and we have a combined ballet class with the Senior Program 2s and the boys, followed by contemporary then character until 2pm.
In total, we have 25 hours of dance a week.
10. What are some corrections that you get from your teacher now?
There are too many to name, but the one that stands out for me is from my pas de deux teacher, Mr Paul Boyd. He focuses a lot on expression and upper body, as well as using your muscles to its maximum. He reminds us every lesson,
“Only you have the key to unlock your inner potential!”
On top of that, he constantly tells us to expand beyond the studio and have interaction with the audience. All this helps not only ourselves, but it will inspire our partners to present themselves differently by bouncing off our energy.
11. How different is it from recreational ballet training? Is there anything you wish you could undo?
The standard is much higher, as the school accepts the best dancers from all over Australia. I am inspired by their dedication and their level of technique, and this motivates me to become a better dancer.
Not really to undo, but I understand the differences now. Because everyone has a different body, so as a dancer it is important to understand which corrections work for you so that you’ll know which ones to “keep” and the ones to ignore because they don’t quite apply to you.
But definitely I have taken away something beneficial from every teacher who taught me and I’m very grateful for that.
12. What do you wear at Queensland Ballet Academy? Do you get excited about dancewear at all?
It’s a dark grey, short-sleeved cotton V-neck leotard with a low back and short sleeves. I have about 25 other leotards. I used to get excited about leotards, but it is now monotonous because I now have a uniform.
13. What is learning Pas De Deux (dancing with a male partner) like? What are some of your challenges? Also describe your pdd partner and what your friendship/relationship is like – is it weird, awkward or totally cool etc.
It’s not as easy as it looks. Many people think that it’s the boy’s job to yank us around, but it is in fact our job to be on our own leg, while he is just there to support us. For example, we have to treat supported pirouettes like it’s our own pirouette. The male dancers are not supposed to grab and turn us around, but are there to put us on our leg if we go off centre.
Communication is crucial, as you have to ensure that he knows where he’s placing your weight. Normally after each exercise, we discuss what needs to be corrected. It is hard for the male dancer as every partner is different and he has to remember what each female dancer requires.
My relationship with my pdd partner is totally cool hahaha. He knows what I need and he is so dedicated and willing to stay back with me to practice.
We do get to partner other people as well. We usually change partners every term or semester, but it really depends on the teacher. I had quite an unfortunate experience, in which I had to change partners two lessons before the exam as one of my classmates was injured. It was quite a challenge as we are not used to partnering each other and he doesn’t know what I need specifically, and it felt like we had to start from square one.
14. How do you cope with fierce competition? What are some of the thoughts and emotions that you have sometimes in vocational training?
At times, I feel that whatever I do is never enough, and I am frustrated as it seems like I’m still struggling with the same old challenges.
I often feel disappointed with myself for not being able to correct something immediately. I also feel overwhelmed by the exhaustion I feel after the whole week of dance.
I must add that I feel that my faith in Jesus helps me a lot mentally and emotionally. I like to remind myself that I am depending on His favor and grace.
15. What do you think of your physicality? In reality, there will always be a dancer with a better “ballet body”, and I’m sure anyone will be more self-conscious of that in a vocational school. How do you cope with that?
There’s always the initial reaction of envy, but having a better body doesn’t make you a better dancer. Being a good dancer involves using your whole body and being in character. I think my body is not ideal in terms of turnout and feet, but I remind myself to use my strengths to cover my weaknesses.
16. Wow, thanks for that inspiring answer. We know that the path to dance ballet at a pre-professional level is not an easy road. Do share with us some of your struggles and challenges and how you’re getting through it.
My main challenge has always been my turn out. I feel that I’m being forced all the time, even if it means going against nature. I’m still working on it, and I persistently try to engage my muscles to its fullest.
Also, as I spent so much time dancing since childhood, I never had time to do what my peers would usually do. Most of my friends would not understand my sacrifice and obsession which they find strange. The competitive nature of ballet world also makes this path a lonely one.
17. Tell us about some of your breakthroughs. Or a memorable turning point. Or turning points!
I feel that I’ve found my key! Like what my pas de deux teacher always says “Only you have the key to unlock your inner potential!” Well, I feel that I have finally unlocked myself. I feel I can express my true self more and more in my dancing.
18. If God gave you one ballet wish – you can wish for anything in this world related to ballet, what would you wish for?
It would be to have a professional career with many favorable opportunities (and to also have the wisdom to manage them) throughout my dancing life.
19. If you were a ballet teacher, what would your focus be? What are some of the things you would want your students to correct?
My main focus would be on expression, feeling, musicality, using the eyes, and position of the head when the students are younger. I would also emphasize on using the muscles to the fullest. One thing that sorta irks me is when dancers, who are gifted with the ideal physical facilities, don’t use them.
But most importantly, I want them to feel that I believe in them, and their goals are as important to me as it is to them. It’s not about what the school wants to achieve, but it’s about their own individual achievements or needs. I would want them to feel that I care.
20. What are some tips you can give to dancers who have not reached your level?
Don’t compete with other dancers, what they have achieved or have. Instead compete with yourself, to get better and better each lesson.
Use your entire body to dance, including your eyes, not only your legs.
When faced with failure, it’s important to bounce back quickly and move on.
Really reflect on corrections and advice.
And most importantly, even if you don’t get the roles you want, never give up, be humble and have a good learning attitude at all times. 🙂
For more about Charmaine, you may follow her on Instagram @charmainecelesse and on YouTube.